Economic Challenges Encountered by Indian Rural Population under Colonial Rule (1857-1947)

Arora IAS Class Notes



  • Colonial economic policies.
  • Decline of handicrafts, forcing people onto land.
  • New land revenue system.
  • Colonial administration and judiciary.

Peasant Struggles:

  • High rents, illegal fees, evictions, and unpaid labor in zamindari areas.
  • Heavy land revenue demands in Ryotwari areas.
  • Reliance on moneylenders with high interest rates.
  • Loss of land and reduced status to tenant or laborer.
  • Resistance against exploitation, targeting colonial state.
  • Rise of crime (robbery, dacoity) due to desperation.


Early Peasant Movements in Colonial India (1859-1885)

Peasant Grievances:

  • Colonial economic policies and exploitation.
  • Forced indigo cultivation (Bengal) at low prices.
  • High rents, illegal fees, evictions, and unpaid labor (zamindari areas).
  • Heavy land revenue demands (Ryotwari areas).
  • Reliance on moneylenders with high interest rates.
  • Difficulty acquiring occupancy rights.

Indigo Revolt (Bengal, 1859-1860):

  • Leaders: Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas (Nadia district).
  • Causes:
    • Planters forcing peasants to grow indigo instead of profitable crops.
    • Advance payments, fraudulent contracts, and intimidation tactics.
  • Peasant Resistance:
    • Refusal to grow indigo and physical resistance against planters’ enforcers.
    • Rent strikes and legal challenges with support from Bengali intelligentsia.
  • Outcome:
    • Indigo Commission established to investigate the issue.
    • Government notification in 1860 allowing peasants to refuse indigo cultivation and seek legal recourse.
    • Decline of indigo cultivation in Bengal by 1860.

Pabna Agrarian Leagues (Eastern Bengal, 1870s-1880s):

  • Causes:
    • Zamindars demanding enhanced rents beyond legal limits.
    • Preventing peasants from acquiring occupancy rights.
    • Evictions, seizure of property, and expensive lawsuits.
  • Peasant Resistance:
    • Formation of agrarian leagues to organize rent strikes and legal challenges.
    • Fundraising for court battles.
    • Support from Indian intellectuals like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C. Dutt, and Indian Association.
  • Outcome:
    • Many peasants acquired occupancy rights and resisted rent hikes.
    • Bengal Tenancy Act passed in 1885 to protect tenants from zamindari oppression.

Deccan Riots (Western India, 1874-1875):

  • Causes:
    • Heavy taxation under the Ryotwari system.
    • Exploitation by moneylenders (mostly Marwaris and Gujaratis).
    • Cotton price crash after American Civil War (1864).
    • Increased land revenue by 50% in 1867.
    • Successive bad harvests.
  • Peasant Resistance:
    • Social boycott of moneylenders in 1874: refusing services and trade.
    • Transformation into agrarian riots with attacks on moneylenders’ property.
    • Burning of debt bonds and deeds.
  • Outcome:
    • Government suppression of the movement.
    • Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act passed in 1879.
    • Support from Maharashtrian nationalist intelligentsia.


Changed Nature of Peasant Movements after 1857


  • Peasants as central force, fighting directly for economic demands.
  • Targets: foreign planters, zamindars, and moneylenders.
  • Aims: specific grievances and limited objectives within the existing system.


  • Limited understanding of colonialism’s role.
  • Lack of new ideology or long-term program for social change.
  • Struggles focused within existing social order.


Later Peasant Movements in Colonial India (20th Century)

Impact of Nationalism:

  • Deeply influenced by and influencing the national freedom struggle.
  • Examples: Champaran Satyagraha and Kheda Satyagraha


The Kisan Sabha Movement (United Provinces):

  • Background:
    • Awadh taluqdars regained land after 1857 revolt, strengthening their control.
    • High rents, evictions, illegal fees, and worsening conditions due to WWI.
  • Formation:
    • UP Kisan Sabha established in February 1918 by Gauri Shankar Mishra and Indra Narayan Dwivedi with support from Madan Mohan Malaviya.
    • 450 branches by June 1919.
    • Awadh Kisan Sabha formed in October 1920 due to internal disagreements.
  • Activities:
    • Refusal to cultivate evicted land, unpaid labor, and boycotts.
    • Dispute resolution through panchayats.
    • Shifted to more militant tactics (bazaar looting, clashes with police) in January 1921.
  • Decline:
    • Government repression.
    • Awadh Rent (Amendment) Act passage.


Eka Movement (United Provinces):

  • Late 1921:Peasant discontent resurfaced in Hardoi, Bahraich, and Sitapur districts.
  • Grievances:
    • High rents (50% above recorded rates).
    • Oppression by revenue collectors (thikadars).
    • Share-renting practices.
  • Activities:
    • Symbolic religious rituals promoting unity.
    • Vows to pay recorded rent on time, resist eviction, refuse forced labor, and abide by panchayat decisions.
    • Grassroots leadership from Madari Pasi and others (low castes and small zamindars).
  • Decline:
    • Government repression by March 1922.


Mappila Revolt (Malabar Region):

  • Participants:Muslim tenants (Mappilas) against Hindu landlords (jenmies).
  • Grievances:
    • Lack of security of tenure.
    • High rents, renewal fees, and other exactions.
    • Encouraged by local Congress’ demand for tenant-landlord regulation legislation.
  • Initial Uprising (August 1921):
    • Merged with Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement.
    • Targeted symbols of British authority and unpopular landlords.
  • Escalation and Communalization:
    • Repression by British authorities.
    • Many Hindus seen as aiding authorities, leading to communal violence.
    • Isolation from Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement.
  • End (December 1921):
    • All resistance quelled.


Bardoli Satyagraha (Surat District):

  • 1926:Land revenue increase by 30% sparked protests.
  • Leadership:Vallabhbhai Patel.
  • Strategies:
    • Refusal to pay revised assessments.
    • Organization through “chhavani” worker camps and a newspaper.
    • Social boycott of movement dissenters.
    • Mobilization of women.
    • Legislative Council resignations in support.
  • Outcome (August 1928):
    • Government compromise: minimal rent increase and independent committee review.


Peasant Awakening in the 1930s:

  • Influenced by the Great Depression and Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • “No-rent, no-revenue” movements in many areas.
  • New political entrants focused on peasant organization.


The All India Kisan Congress/Sabha (AIKS):

  • 1936:Founded in Lucknow with Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (president) and N.G. Ranga (general secretary).
  • Activities:
    • Kisan manifesto issued.
    • Periodical publication.
    • Collaboration with Congress (Faizpur sessions in 1936).
    • Influencing Congress’ 1937 provincial election manifesto (agrarian policy).


Peasant Movements under Congress Ministries (1937-1939):

  • High point of peasant mobilization and activity.
  • Kisan conferences, meetings, and village mobilization campaigns.


Peasant Activity in Indian Provinces (Pre-Independence)


  • Mobilization by Congress Socialist Party.
  • “Karshak Sanghams” (peasant organizations) formed.
  • Jath processions (groups marching to landlords) for demands.
  • 1938 campaign for amending Malabar Tenancy Act (1929).


  • Decline of zamindari prestige after Congress election wins.
  • Anti-zamindari movements and provincial ryot associations.
  • G. Ranga’s India Peasants’ Institute (1933).
  • Congress Socialist Party organizing peasants after 1936.
  • Summer schools on economics and politics.


  • Leadership by Sahajanand Saraswati and others.
  • 1935 Provincial Kisan Conference adopts anti-zamindari slogan.
  • Rift with Congress over “bakasht land” issue (unfavorable government resolution).
  • Movement ends by August 1939.


  • Earlier mobilization by various groups (Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Kirti Kisan Party, etc.).
  • New direction by Punjab Kisan Committee (1937).
  • Targets: landlords of western Punjab (dominated unionist ministry).
  • Issues: land revenue resettlement, water rate hikes in canal colonies (feudal levies).
  • Peasant strikes and successful concessions.
  • Activity concentrated in Jullundur, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Lyallpur, and Shekhupura.
  • Limited participation by Muslim tenants-at-will (west Punjab) and Hindu peasants (southeastern Punjab).

Other Provinces:

  • Peasant activity also seen in Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Central Provinces, and NWFP.

During World War II:

  • Pro-war communist line splits AIKS (veteran leaders leave).
  • Kisan Sabha continues work, including famine relief in 1943.


Peasant Movements in Post-War India


Tebhaga Movement (Bengal, 1946):

  • Goal:Implement two-thirds share (tebhaga) for sharecroppers (bargadars) instead of half.
  • Leadership:Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha and communist cadres.
  • Activities:
    • Organizing bargadars and taking harvested paddy to their own threshing floors (against tradition).
  • Location:North Bengal (Rajbanshi community and Muslims).
  • Decline:
    • League ministry’s Bargadari Bill concession.
    • Government repression.
    • Hindu Mahasabha’s separate Bengal agitation and communal riots.


Telangana Movement (Hyderabad State, 1946-1948):

  • Largest peasant uprising in modern India (3,000 villages, 3 million people).
  • Context:
    • Asaf Jahi Nizam’s rule with:
      • Religious-linguistic domination (Urdu-speaking Muslim elite over Hindu-Telugu, Marathi, Kannada).
      • Lack of political freedoms.
      • Exploitation by landlords (deshmukhs, jagirdars, doras) through forced labor (vethi) and exactions.
    • Communist activity during war built a base through Andhra Mahasabha (local struggles).
  • Uprising:
    • Triggered by a deshmukh’s thug killing a village militant (Jangaon taluq, Nalgonda).
    • Spread to Warangal and Khammam.
    • Peasant organization (village sanghams) using lathis, slingshots, and chili powder.
    • Brutal repression by the state.
    • Most intense period: August 1947 – September 1948.
    • Peasants routed the Nizam’s stormtroopers (Razakars).
  • Achievements (in controlled villages):
    • Abolition of vethi and forced labor.
    • Increased agricultural wages.
    • Land restoration.
    • Land ceiling and redistribution efforts.
    • Irrigation improvements and cholera control.
    • Improved conditions for women.
  • Impact:
    • Weakened Hyderabad’s autocratic-feudal regime.
    • Paved the way for Andhra Pradesh’s formation on linguistic lines.

Impact of Peasant Movements

  • Enabled post-independence agrarian reforms (zamindari abolition).
  • Weakened landed class and transformed agrarian structure.
  • Nationalism-based ideology with similar character across regions.





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